It’s a cultural thing.
I’ve always been interesting in all aspects of food and I remember as a teenager winning a family trivia game knowing that Lactobaccilus acidophilus was the technical term for yoghurt. I remember my Dad being very impressed! Of course it is actually the name of a kind of bacteria (culture) that feeds on the natural lactose sugar in milk and turns it into lactic acid, giving yoghurt its characteristic fermented sour taste and thickened texture. But more than that, the beneficial bacterial cultures in yoghurt turn a nutrient-rich food (milk) into an even better one by making it easier to digest and promoting health by restoring levels of beneficial probiotic bacteria in the gut.
Yoghurt is a very old food, familiar in many traditional cultures back to medieval times and thought to have spontaneously occurred while carrying milk in goatskin bags. Since then yoghurt production has taken off in a big way around the world, starting in Europe and then in the USA by health enthusiasts including Harvey Kellogg. The many brightly coloured, super sweet yoghurts of today are quite different to the original, with many relying on thickeners to achieve the right texture. Try mixing plain and flavoured yoghurt together to ease off the sweetness, especially for babies and toddlers. If you’re serious about authentic yoghurt try making your own with a kit – they are easily available and easy to use (and save you money and reduce packaging). You simply add the culture to warmed milk and let the little friendly bugs do their thing.
Otherwise, look for products with live cultures, a minimum of additives and large containers (you can dish out portions into sealable containers for the lunchbox). I’m a big fan of Greek-style yoghurt, and especially those that are strained so they’re naturally thicker and higher in protein. These products have beautiful mouth-feel and flavour as well as better cooking properties, although all yoghurts are best added after cooking or at the last minute rather than cook in the dish as they will separate. Do be selective with Greek-style yoghurts as many are not strained and have cream added instead giving them quite a whack of saturated fat, which is fine if you’re just using it for topping instead of cream or sour cream but less fine if you’re eating larger amounts on its own.
Yoghurt is a great source of calcium for healthy bones and also contains significant amounts of vitamins A, B12 and riboflavin, as well as minerals including phosphorous, potassium, magnesium and zinc. Yoghurt contains lower levels of lactose than milk due to the action of bacterial cultures and is better tolerated by people with lactose intolerance.
Frozen yoghurt (‘Fro-yo’ for short) is really popular with chain stores popping up like mushrooms after rain. With all the colourful, sweet and rich toppings including cookie bits, cookie dough, jelly beans, chocolate, toffee and miniature versions of popular chocolate bars, the original low-fat yoghurt base loses its healthy food credibility and is more like a dessert treat than an everyday food. If you’re really into it you could make your own using the new Frozen Yoghurt cookbook by Constance and Mathilde De Lorenzi (Murdoch Books), however like the chain store versions stick to fruit and nut toppings for everyday eating. And if you’re wondering, you don’t need an ice cream maker to do it, and you can use any yoghurt to make frozen yoghurt (I was amazed just how much I learned about frozen yoghurt from this fun book).
I love yoghurt at breakfast, and enjoy a generous dollop on top of porridge or muesli along with some nuts and a drizzle of honey or date syrup. Yoghurt with honey was known in ancient India as the food of the gods but I add fresh walnuts or macadamias on top to make it truly divine. Its great added to fruit and milk to make smoothies, or as a topping on desserts. It’s also the perfect satisfying snack to get you through to your next meal. In the popular diet book ‘French Women don’t get fat’ (which is a myth because they do), author Mireille Guiliano sings the praises of a spoon or two of plain yoghurt to banish hunger. She may be onto something because several studies have shown eating yoghurt is associated with reduced risk of weight gain and obesity: the very large Harvard cohort studies; and the Spanish SUN study. Perhaps it is because of the good balance between carbohydrate and protein, and the low GI of yoghurt that helps achieve this? The findings of the Diogenes study would certainly support it because they found the best diet for ongoing maintenance of weight loss was higher in protein and lower GI. Of course weight loss never results from eating more food than you need (even yoghurt), but eating healthy foods like yoghurt may help you fit more nutrition into fewer kilojoules (calories).
Of course natural (unflavoured) yoghurt can be a star in savoury dishes as well. It makes a great base for dips, such as eggplant baba ganoush, or cucumber raita, not to mention beetroot kiz guzeli. Pumpkin soup lovers will know the pleasures of a dollop of yoghurt on top, as will those who enjoy the cooling and creamy addition on Indian curries. However you have it, eating yoghurt on a regular basis is an enjoyable and healthy habit. Go on, get cultured! Buon appetito!
Nicole Senior is an Accredited Nutritionist, author and consultant who strives to make healthy food taste terrific. You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook or checkout her website